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Service NL confident in school bus system

A school bus caught fire on Prince Philip Parkway in St. John's Thursday morning.
A school bus caught fire on Prince Philip Parkway in St. John's Thursday morning.

Originally published Feb. 9, 2017 ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A red seal mechanic can spend a full day inspecting a school bus. The form they fill out in the process becomes an important part of a system designed to help assure child safety. But what if the records are falsified? What if the owner of a bus company wants a different outcome and is willing to break the rules for it?

Can we say with certainty the system still works? Are we confident in school bus safety?

The questions follow a series of announcements by Service NL over the past six months, with Highway Traffic Act charges laid against multiple bus companies, service stations and mechanics. Earlier this month, a fourth case was revealed, this time involving criminal charges and allegations of fraud. The charges are before the courts.

Looking at the cases collectively, both the school board and Service NL said their general confidence in the system stands.

"Every day, student safety is first and foremost on our radar," said Terry Hall, the English School District's assistant director of education for finance and student transportation.

His is a long title, but the bottom line is he's responsible for the student transportation division. His staff deals with school bus contracts, routes and tendering. They also have responsibility for the English school district's own depots and the deployment of buses.

When it comes to determining mechanical safety for all, Hall said the school board looks to the inspection station (garage) reports received twice a year and to the inspections by the regulator, Service NL.

The mechanics' inspection reports include five carbon copies, distributed to five different sets of eyes, with one being in the school district's files. And Service NL's own vehicle inspections provide reassurance on any mechanical concerns, he said.

"The independent inspection by Service NL will uncover issues when an official inspection station (garage) or a contractor is doing something they're not supposed to do," he said.

The province has 227 Official Inspection Stations licensed to deal with school buses. The charges announced over the last six months relate to four locations.

And yet, the same six-month period a year ago did not include a string of news items on charges tied to school buses. So what explains the recent charges?

Hall did not have a definitive answer. He suggested the public is paying more attention to buses.

One investigation, as already reported, began with a bus crash wherein no students were on the bus at the time. The Board asked Service NL to inspect that bus and found more followup required.

The current government increased the penalties for violating the regulations set for school bus inspection stations, but the requirements themselves are largely unchanged.

Service NL could not speak to specific charges, beyond what has already been released. A request for the name of the bus company served by Roche's Automotive Services and Peter Roche -now facing criminal charges - was denied.

However, a statement spoke to the question of faith in the system.

"Parents and children who travel on school buses should have every confidence that the buses are safe," it read. "School buses are held to an extremely high standard of mechanical fitness, and are subject to more rigorous inspection requirements than any other vehicle operated on provincial highways."

That includes Service NL reviews - by 31 trained highway enforcement officers - as well as the mechanical inspection forms.

School bus operator Dave Callahan said he sees it differently; with the last six months of allegations a sign of money problems as likely as anything else.

"It's something I've been predicting that was coming," he said, claiming the approach to contracting, through public tender, has resulted in companies low-balling bids just to keep work in hand.

Everything from replacement parts, to the purchase of new buses to refresh a fleet gets shoved to the backburner in such cases, he said. On top of a shortage of cash, he suggested short-term contracting offers little to any bank approached for a loan.

He painted the picture of a corner, one more and more companies were sent into, pressuring the system. "There aren't too many ministers making these decisions, or ADMs, or deputy ministers going to work every day in a 12-year-old vehicle," he said, "but their kids and their grandkids are."

Independent MHA Paul Lane put a complaint on busing, on behalf of Callahan and some other operators, to the Citizens' Representative. The MHA has also expressed concerns ranging from how bus routes are handled to mechanical safety, calling for an all-party committee. He said he wants to see Service NL out for bus inspections earlier in the year, ahead of school starting and not running inspections into late September, October.

And there was something else.

"Right now they have a system where bus owners can inspect their own buses. They go to a mechanic, or in some cases the bus owners actually own their own garage and have their own mechanic," he said, echoing the provincial auditor general, from a report published over a decade ago.

"They're really inspecting themselves. So I see obviously a conflict there," Lane said.

The school board said it would not comment on the Service NL policy allowing it.

For its part, a Service NL rep said the government inspections would identify problems not addressed by private mechanics, in a true case of falsified records.

But also, apart from companies now charged, about 30 more bus companies currently operate their own inspection stations and work with integrity and professionalism, The Telegram was told. "Prohibiting all school bus companies from operating an Official Inspection Station would be an unjust and improper punishment to those operators," the spokeswoman stated.

A change on the current policy of allowing the relationships would also affect the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. The district employs mechanics for inspections of its own buses at multiple locations throughout the province.

Service NL performs checks on the district fleet the same as the rest, with results included in a summary now being published online. The last report noted 340 district-owned buses were inspected in the fall - more than any private school bus operator.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Charges laid

- October 2016 - Island Bus Service in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, based on allegedly faulty inspection documents. The Official Inspection Station (certified garage) completing the mechanical inspections - on Bell Island and also reportedly owned by the company - was charged. So too was a mechanic.

- Jan. 13, 2017, Service NL revealed charges against C-MAC Construction Limited in Cormack, plus a garage run by C-MAC in Deer Lake, and a mechanic.

- Jan. 24, Service NL revealed charges against bus company Kelloway Investments Limited and J.J. Services, both in St. John's. In that case, a mechanic was not charged.

- Feb. 1 the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary revealed both Highway Traffic Act charges and criminal charges against Roche's Automotive Services on Brookfield Road and owner Peter Roche. The charges centre on alleged fraudulent inspections and inspection documents.
Service NL inspectors

41 - Highway Enforcement Officer positions

37 - Highway Enforcement Officers currently on staff

31 - Officers with school bus inspection training (Remaining six to have training completed by this spring)

(Source: Service NL, emailed response to questions.)


Inspection reports not online

Statements made by Service NL Minister Eddie Joyce in December, regarding school bus inspections and safety, have been misrepresented in some reports.

Joyce said the government is posting the results of inspection reports online, but this is not the same as posting the actual reports.

The province offers a summary of Service NL records, covering hundreds of individual documents within a few pages. The actual forms completed during each bus inspection are not posted online.

Forms completed during mechanical inspections by garages are similarly not posted.

The mechanical inspection forms in particular can offer additional information, including the length of time spent on an inspection. The Telegram has filed an Access to Information request in order to review some of these reports.

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